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Iran And The Case For Realism

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Iran And The Case For Realism


WASHINGTON — Foreign policy debates rarely get away from being reflections of domestic political conflicts, but they are also usually based on unstated assumptions and unacknowledged theories.

That’s true of the struggle over the Iran nuclear agreement, even if raw politics is playing an exceptionally large role. There are many indications that Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME) might in other circumstances be willing to back the accord. But they have to calculate the very high costs of breaking with their colleagues on an issue that has become a test of party loyalty.

There is also the unfortunate way in which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to frame Congress’ vote as a pro- or anti-Israel proposition. Many staunch supporters of Israel may have specific criticisms of the inspection regime, but they also believe that the restraints on Iran’s nuclear program are real. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) for example, has said that American negotiators “got an awful lot, particularly on the nuclear front.” And the “nuclear front,” after all, is the main point.

But the pressures on Cardin, who is still undecided, and several other Democrats to vote no anyway are enormous. A yes vote from Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, would be a true profiles-in-courage moment — and have a real influence on his wavering colleagues.

President Obama and his allies are right to say that the dangers of having the agreement blocked by Congress are much higher than the risks of trying to make it work. The notion that the United States could go back and renegotiate for something even tougher is laughable because this is not simply a U.S.-Iranian deal. It also involves allies who strongly back what’s on the table. Suggesting that the old sanctions on Iran could be restored is absurd for the same reason: Our partners would bridle if the United States disowned what it has agreed to already.

The administration’s core challenge to its critics is: “What is the alternative?” It is not a rhetorical question.

The counts at the moment suggest that Obama will win by getting at least enough votes to sustain a veto of legislation to scuttle the pact. He has a shot (Cardin’s decision could be key) of getting 41 senators to prevent a vote on an anti-deal measure altogether.

But once this episode is past us, the president, his congressional opponents and the regiment of presidential candidates owe the country a bigger discussion on how they see the United States’ role in the world. Obama in particular could profit from finally explaining what the elusive “Obama Doctrine” is and responding, at least indirectly, to criticisms of the sort that came his way Friday from Republican presidential hopefuls Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.

There are many (I’m among them) who see Obama primarily as a foreign policy realist. Especially after our adventures in Iraq, realism looks a whole lot better than it once did. I say this as someone who still thinks that the U.S. needs to stand up for democratic values and human rights, but also sees military overreach as a grave danger to our interests and long-term strength. The principal defense of Obama’s stewardship rests on the idea that, despite some miscues, his realism about what military power can and can’t achieve has recalibrated America’s approach, moving it in the right direction.

A useful place to start this discussion is “The Realist Persuasion,” Richard K. Betts’ article in the 30th anniversary issue of The National Interest, realism’s premier intellectual outpost. Betts, a Columbia University scholar, argues that realists “focus more on results than on motives and are more attuned to how often good motives can produce tragic results.” While idealistic liberals and conservatives alike are often eager to “support the righteous and fight the villainous,” realists insist that the actual choices we face are “often between greater and lesser evils.”

“At the risk of overgeneralizing,” he writes, “one can say that idealists worry most about courage, realists about constraints; idealists focus on the benefits of resisting evil with force, realists on the costs.” On the whole, “realists recommend humility rather than hubris.”

For those of us whose heads are increasingly realist but whose hearts are still idealist, realism seems cold and morally inadequate. Yet the realists’ moral trump card is to ask whether squandering lives, treasure and power on impractical undertakings has anything to do with morality. Critics of realism confront the same question that opponents of the Iran deal face: “What is the alternative?”

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (2nd R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (L) talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as the wait for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (not pictured) for a group picture at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

E. J. Dionne

Besides contributing to The National Memo, E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and a university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2013).

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  1. Dominick Vila August 31, 2015

    If the decision to ratify the nuclear weapons agreement reached with Iran was based strictly on common sense and what is best for the world, and our interests, it would have been ratified by now.
    All we have to do to understand the real motives for opposing this agreement is to read or listen to the explanations given by its detractors to oppose it.
    From claims that Iran will build a nuclear bomb within 2 months if we sign an agreement that ends weapons great uranium enrichment; to the fact that some centrifuges are allowed to remain in place to support peaceful endeavors, such as the construction of nuclear energy facilities; to assumptions claiming that Iran will use its oil revenues to support terrorism, instead of modernizing the country and improving their standard of living; everything that has been put forth to derail this agreement makes no sense whatsoever. That is, unless the real objectives are to ensure the Middle East and Persian Gulf region remains unstable to guarantee the continuance of foreign and military aid to Israel, ensure our arms industry is not impacted, and prevent cheap Iranian oil from bringing the price of crude to the point that it would no longer be profitable to explore, drill, refine, and transport oil, among other economic and geo-political imperatives.
    The problem with the agreement with Iran is not that it is flawed, but that it may stabilize the Persian Gulf, lead to a rapprochement with Iran, and contribute to peaceful coexistence in a region beset by chaos.

    1. greenlantern1 August 31, 2015

      Hoover shook hands with Hitler!!

      1. Dominick Vila August 31, 2015

        Reagan provided WMDs, intelligence, and training to Saddam and his regime during the Iran-Iraq war, and informed them of potential collusion between the Iranians and the Kurds…with predictable consequences for the latter.
        W sat next to the Chinese hierarchy, hat in hand, during the Olympic games while China was slaughtering people in Tibet.
        No wonder the GOP is desperate trying to come up with parallels…

      2. S.J. Jolly August 31, 2015

        Welcome to real-world diplomacy.

  2. FireBaron August 31, 2015

    As long as Loose Cannons like Bebe are in charge in Israel, there can never be a peaceful solution to the Middle East’s problems. I am not saying the Iranian government is full of saints, either. Whenever you have an elected government that can be overruled by an appointed religious leader, you really do not have any semblance of a democratic republic.

    The Mullahs who actually run the country need a severe lesson in “Realpolitik”, rather than just continuously mouthing pro-Islamist rhetoric, to realize just how badly the economic isolation Iran has faced has held back their development. Then again, that same economic isolation has also strengthened their position in control of the country.

  3. greenlantern1 August 31, 2015

    President Reagan, NOT President Obama, ordered Oliver North to sell arms to Ayatollah Khomeini!!
    NEATO idea?

  4. Eleanore Whitaker August 31, 2015

    Wake up people! The Iran Treaty bashers are Big Oil billionaires. Iran, until the US and allies sanctions, was the No. 2 World seller of oil. Think about this. If OPEC is now refusing to reduce oil prices and production and you add in a huge competitor to US oil like Iran, wouldn’t you as a Big Oil billionaire pay off your vest pocket politicians to protest it?

    Sure does make that Keystone Pipeline dirty tar sand oil that sells below market value look pretty necessary for the dying US oil industry, doesn’t it?

    The question ALL Republicans can’t answer without investing another $7 trillion in a needless war they won’t ever fight, nor any of their kids, is precisely what President Obama so clearly recognizes: If not a treaty with Iran, what? War?

    Professor, author and columnist, Walter Brasch in September 2005 wrote this about Iraq after he complied numbers on the costs of that war:
    “George W. Bush inherited from his predecessor a $230 billion budget surplus and a balanced budget. In the five years since, the surplus has become a $7.9 trillion deficit, which increases at a rate of about $1.7 billion per day. The occupation of Iraq costs somewhere between $4 billion and $5 billion per month, increasing the deficit exponentially. A meticulously constructed Federal Emergency Management agency as downsized and budget-slashed by this administration as part of its “small government” quest, and run by an appointee whose experience in disaster management came from representing the owners of “Arabian” horses.”

    Remember, the above was written in 2005, not 2015. Nothing about the GOP agena has changed. If we do not put the GOP in its place and soon, our middle class will end up in the streets in mass revolt for the wastefully spent tax dollars on war to keep Republican states’ economie from going under.

    Is that the choice? Kill off another 4,000 military to insure Republican states NEVER have to get off their duffs and learn to advance and progress without oil and war?


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